Sunday, September 30, 2012

Action cameras

Since action cameras became popular a few years ago, the internet has been flooded with POV videos of various activities. The quality of these has been varying, to say it kindly, and I have been quite uninterested to contribute to that. Correctly used, though, an action camera can add valuable material to short films and I feel I've been missing out on that.

I've been on the verge of buying an action camera for the entire year. The first alternative on my list has been the GoPro Hero HD 2, which until recently was the alternative with the best video quality. Just a few weeks ago, Sony came out with their take on an action camera. The Sony camera has a lot going for it, including the price, but it was a disappointment that the optical image stabilizer does not work with the widest field of view, which at least for bike riding videos has been very popular, since it gives an impression of good speed even where there is none. The decisive factor against the Sony action camera for me was that there was no support for the PAL 25p framerate.

The GoPro Hero HD 2 would seem to be the best option, especially if the promised firmware update enabling reasonable bit rates (up to 35 Mbps) ever becomes available. It is rather pricey, though, and a set with the needed mounts would cost 350-400 €. A lot of money for something that would get used for only about 20 seconds of a short film lasting a few minutes. As I see it, an action camera is a very specialized item and not good for much else, due to the strong optical distorsions and performance compared to an ordinary camera or video camera. I already have a good camera for video and a good solution for timelapse photography, so I would only need an action camera for some short POV clips when riding a bike.

Still, a GoPro Hero HD 2 was on my wish list until I yesterday for some reason saw that Gigantti had a clearance sale on the Contour Roam action camera. The Contour Roam is a cheaper model and with a clearance price of 129 €, I decided to give it a try.

The below video shows some of my first impressions (note that Vimeo has degraded the quality of the video).

The form factor is quite good, though it won't easily fit a chest harness, which could be a big deal for some people. The GoPro chest harness is supposed to fit, though, using an adapter for the Drift action camera. I like the fact that they have made it waterproof for ordinary use (1 m and 30 minutes) without the need for an extra waterproof case. It has a single button for starting and stopping recording it and not much more. The settings have to be changed on the computer (or by using different memory cards with different settings). The rotatable lens and laser marks makes it quite easy to get it level. It can also be directly mounted on a tripod without an extra adapter and the Contour Flex Strap (40€) fits a bike pretty well.

Am I satisfied with the Contour Roam? No, not really, but would a GoPro Hero HD 2 be notably better? The GoPro HD 2 gives a nominal 1920x1080 resolution with a 170° FOV compared to the 125° FOV of the Contour Roam at 1920x1080, which is an advantage to the GoPro. In practice the different might not be as big, and I think the 1280x960 resolution is better since it gives some room for adjusting the video heightwise in the video editor. With both the Contour and the GoPro, the video quality is limited by the poor optics and the limited bitrate of max 17 Mbps. Compare this to my Panasonic GH2, which with the FlowMotion 2.02 patch gives 70 Mpbs with a better encoder. In one aspect, the Contour Roam is clearly better than the GoPro in my view: The fisheye distortion is not nearly as bad, though it is still there.

I still see an action camera as only a complement to a real camera, since the video quality is so poor in comparison. For me it will be used to get some POV shots from interesting angles as well as some material from situation that an ordinary camera cannot handle, like water and rain.

This post was updated after using the camera a little more.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Utö again

I visited Utö for the first time in January. Having always been fascinated by barren nature, I didn't hesitate to accept an invitation to go to Utö in September. I would go with a small group of seven persons I know from similar trips. While it is perfectly possible to go alone as well, being in a group makes the accomodation a  lot cheaper and easier.

The ferry left from Pärnäs at  18:15 and took about five hours to reach Utö. The evening was quite nice, but the weather forecast for the weekend was quite depressing: Rain, rain and more rain, with no glimpses of the sun forecasted.
Paul takes some photos.

The first stop was Berghamn.
The sunset at 19:30 was behind us.
 Paul took the last photos of the day.

We arrived a little after eleven in the evening. It rained quite a bit. The strategy for tomorrow was to check the weather at 6:30 (the sunrise was at 7:15) and get up if the cloud cover wasn't totally featureless. I got up with Paul and we got out in good time before the sunrise.

Unfortunately, the sunrise wasn't actually visible in any way. The clouds were just a little lighter in that direction.

I had a thermos bottle and the means to make good coffee as well as some sandwhiches for breakfast, but just when I had walked about as far as it was possible on the island, it started to rain. Hard. I took a few more photos and then returned to the cottage for breakfast.

After breakfast and two cups of dark coffee, I went out again for some more photography starting from the lighthouse, which was just a short bit from the cottage.

Birdwatchers at the lighthouse. Utö is a popular place for birdwatching, especially during the migration. The following morning Håkan counted 27 species during one hour while drinking the morning coffee on the terrace of the cottage. For more info about birdwatching on Utö, see Jorma Tenovuo's web pages. Actually, check them out anyway for some really great bird photography.

The cloud cover let some of the sun through.

The lighthouse and the pilot house.

The church.

Shaggy ink cap, which is supposed to be a good edible mushroom. I've never tasted it, though.

Remnant from the summer.
Just as I again got as far away from the cottage as possible, it started to rain again. Now, with rain gear some rain and wind isn't really a problem for me, but I didn't want to expose my camera gear too much, so I walked back to the cottage for lunch. Sometimes professional grade weather sealed equipment would be nice, though it won't happen with my economical resources.

Photographing of goldcrests outside the window while I had lunch.
Magnus looks very serious with binoculars and two cameras ready for action.

I also decided to give it a try. Goldcrests are quite difficult to photograph in their natural habitat, since they are very small, in fact the smallest bird in Europe, and move very quickly. Here at Utö the trees are quite low, though, and there are not too many places to hide when the hard weather have brought the birds down from their migration.

A spare lighthouse?


I took some pictures of the surfs as well, trying different shutter times. 1/1600 s gives a fairly static result, freezing everything.
Putting on a dense ND filter, I got the shutter time down to 1/25 s, which I think is more interesting.

 I think 1/20 s worked fairly well for this one. I spent around ten minutes in a spot that was fairly dry and then got entirely soaked by a freak wave that obviously was a lot bigger that anything had been for a while.
Now the weather was quite sunny and nice.

The Park Victory monument.


Vincetoxicum hirundinaria (tulkört, käärmeenpistonyrtti).

This year there seems to be a lot of rowan berries.

Pilot boat.
During the late afternoon it started to rain again and the cloud cover just got thicker. Time for dinner then. Since the rain just got more intense during the evening, there was not much point in going out for more photography. A good time for some reading and checking out (i.e. deleting) photos.

The next morning the wind had turned 180 degrees and the rain continued, though not as hard as during the night.

Our accomodation, Hannas horisont B&B.

I put a simple rain cover on the camera (I really should get better one) and strolled around the village after breakfast.

The lighthouse is that way.

Through the opening of a small fortification.

Yellow toadflax.

A tenacious rose.

Good to know.

A goldcrest that crashed into the window. It didn't get hurt too bad, and flew away after ten minutes. A Song Thrush wasn't as lucky the day before: It died one hour after it flew into the window.

The ferry back left at 11:15. It was now raining fairly hard with a very refreshing wind from north.

Until the next time then...

I think it is nice that M/S Eivor retains at least something from its life as Baldur in the stormy seas of Iceland.

Stopping at Jurmo.

The weather did not improve and I spent most of the five hour journey back to Pärnäs reading a good book.

That's it. It was a nice weekend trip.